Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
Love him or loathe him, one thing is beyond dispute: Zimbabwe’s founding President Robert Mugabe, in the words of the late hero Stan Mudenge, was “a man of unmistakable intellect, great oratory skills, alluring wit and charm”, and an extraordinary kind of national leader.
He had been described by many as a person of passionate and unswerving moral and political conviction, while others have gone a step further to define him as an “unbending revolutionary and unyielding Pan Africanist and visionary.”
Cde Mugabe’s unyielding toughness with white former settler farmers and Western countries, his pitiless enforcement of the land reform programme and rough unfettered black empowerment policies alienated many of his opponents.
Despite serious opposition from political actors at home and abroad, many agree that Mugabe moved the central ground of Zimbabwean politics, and was a huge figure on the world stage. His opponents disagreed with some of his policies, and yet they also greatly respected his political achievements and personal strength.
Well documented comments from some of his fiercest opponents show that his critics had been slain by his personality and intellectual brilliance.
Former Finance Minister and MDC Alliance vice president Tendai Biti once described former President Mugabe as “Zimbabwe itself” and as a fountain of wisdom.
“He is a fountain of experience, knowledge and, most importantly, fountain of stability . . . He is the number one symbol of stability. Us, the younger generation, are lucky to have gone through his hands,” Biti said.
“We find counsel and wisdom in him. His importance in this country will be seen after he is gone. When he is gone that is when you will see that this man was Zimbabwe.”
Former United States of America Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, who worked 24/7 to push for the ouster of Cde Mugabe, reluctantly conceded after his tenure that he was a brilliant tactician.
“He is cleverer than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician . . .” said Dell in one of the secret American Embassy cables leaked by Wikileaks in 2011.
Dell’s successor Ambassador Charles Ray, as Mudenge once put it, “poured out his admiration for the (former) President” by describing him as having an “encyclopedia of a brain.”
A veteran guerrilla leader and nationalist, Cde Mugabe was underestimated at first by his opponents, the Western media and foreign adversaries.
But they all soon learned to respect him for his ferocious will and determination. From his Catholic and Jesuit teachings, Cde Mugabe learned the values of justice, discipline and industry as a young man.
Even those who disagreed with him have never doubted the strength of his conviction and his unwavering belief in Zimbabwe’s destiny and sovereignty in the world. His critics saw him as a unique figure, who reshaped the politics of a whole generation and commanded enormous respect throughout the world.
“He is a strong leader, who still commands enormous respect throughout the world. In Senegal, when I say to the man on the street that I am from Zimbabwe, the response is invariably ‘Mugabe! I like your President! He is a very strong man,’ Gertrude Stevenson, Zimbabwe’s late ambassador to Senegal once remarked.
“People like the fact that he still stands up to our former colonisers. As I have come to know him better, I have been struck by his interest in my family and my life, as well as his sense of humour and his phenomenal memory. I hope and pray that his recollection of pre-independence struggles and meetings, particularly on the rest of the continent, are captured for posterity. He is a walking history book.”
Revolutionary icon Cde Mugabe’s unshakable belief was that Africans too had a right to enjoy and benefit from their heritage — natural resources tugged at the heartstrings of many of the continent’s impoverished people. And his admirers in the opposing camp were often particularly taken by his charisma.
Opposition politician Welshman Ncube in an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper in February 2013, said he had been exposed to a different side of Mugabe that he never imagined existed.
“Ninety percent of the time, I cannot recognise the Mugabe I sit with in Cabinet from the Mugabe who has ruled this country,” he was quoted saying.
“He shows real concern for his country and people, like a father. And he can master detail over a wide range of Government matters.”
Politician and former minister of Regional Integration and International Cooperation Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga also saw Mugabe as a great patriot with a deep inner conviction for things he seriously believed in.
“I did not think Mugabe believed in things,” she said in an interview with the Guardian way back. “Now I know that Mugabe actually believes in things, ideologically, like that the British are after regime change in Zimbabwe.
“When he believes in something, he will genuinely defend it. If he believes in an action, no matter how wrong it is, he will not apologise. That is one hallmark of Mugabe. He is loyal to his beliefs.”
In the same report, Misihairabwi-Mushonga, who was an MDC political member, said she did not know that Cde Mugabe was “a serious charmer around women”.
“A very, very, very good charmer . . . He also has an exceptional sense of humour,” she said. “You literally are in stitches throughout Cabinet. But he also has an intellectual arrogance.
“If you do not strike him as someone intelligent, he has no time for you. There are certain people who, when they speak in Cabinet, he sits up and listens, and others who, when they speak, he pretends to be asleep.”
Even though Nelson Chamisa, who was by then MDC-T organising secretary and Information Communication Technology Minister, did not like some of Cde Mugabe’s leadership aspects, he nevertheless showed great admiration for Mugabe’s intellect and his powerfully held principles.
“Sitting in Cabinet with him, I admire his intellect. He has dexterity of encyclopaedic proportions,” he once remarked. “He is a bad leader, but a gifted politician. Why do I say he is a gifted politician? He has the ability to manage political emotions and intentions.”
Whatever side of the political debate you stand on, no one can deny that Cde Mugabe will leave a unique and lasting imprint on the country and the continent he served. In 2004, a survey conducted by the London-based New African magazine placed founding President Mugabe among the three greatest Africans of all time.
He was positioned alongside Kwame Nkrumah and South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
Developing countries’ foreign ministers and ambassadors at one time after Cde Mugabe had addressed the United Nations General Assembly remarked that: “Three free men of the world spoke without fear during the debate of the UN General Assembly, one was George W. Bush of the United States of America, the other two were Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia and Robert Mugabe of Africa — no Zimbabwe.”
World acclaimed icon Cde Mugabe may have divided opinion in his time, but everyone seems united in acknowledging the strength of his personality and the radicalism of his politics.
And despite grumblings from his adversaries, Mugabe remains a lantern and role model for many people and a long haul social change agent blessed with uncommon commitment and talent.
Love him or hate him, Cde Mugabe’s fingerprints are quietly embedded in many of the transforming events of the last three decades of independence as Zimbabweans pushed open and walked through previously closed doors of opportunity.
His intellect and strength remained as sharp as his signature sense of style.